Few people know that the Pilgrims experimented with a kind of Christian-inspired communism. In his work, History of Plimoth Plantation, William Bradford wrote about the experience. This post investigates the relevant excerpt.
It's important to know that prior to the opening sentence below, Bradford was writing about the hardships the colony was experiencing with no expectation of relief.
August Glen-James, editor
The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that among godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times—that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing, as if they were wiser than God.
All this while no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expect any. So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the governor (with the advice of the chief among them) gave way that they should set corn, every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so [was] assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance), and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn, which before would allege weakness and inability, whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.
The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that among godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times—that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing, as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men that were most able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labors and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery; neither could many husbands well brook it. Upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that God has set among men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved among them. And it would have been worse if they had been men of another condition. Let none object this is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.
Corn and Allotments of Land
. . . I must speak a word of their planting this year. They having found the benefit of their last year’s harvest, and setting corn for their particular, having thereby with a great deal of patience overcome hunger and famine . . . .
They began now highly to prize corn as more precious than silver, and those that had some to spare began to trade one with another for small things, by the quart, pottle [two quarts], and peck [8 quarts], etc.; for money they had none, and if any had, corn was preferred before it. That they might, therefore, increase their tillage to better advantage, they made suit to the governor to have some portion of land given them for continuance and not by yearly lot. For by that means, that which the more industrious had brought into good culture (by much pains) one year, came to leave it the next, and often another might enjoy it; so as the dressing of their lands were the more slighted over and to less profit. Which being well considered, their request was granted. And to every person was given only one acre of land, to them and theirs, as near the town as might be; and they had no more till the seven years were expired. The reason was that they might be kept close together, both for more safety and defense, and the better improvement of the general employments. . . .